I really doubt governments engage in emotional behaviour like vengeance, since governments have by definition no emotions: they are usually ready to do whatever might be in their best interest, but vengeance serves no practical purpose whatsoever except that of satisfying someone’s desire to requite for a perceived affront. Thus, I am not sure how likely would it be for the Kremlin to assassinate Prigozhin out of revenge.
The meaning of vengeance
Vengeance (or revenge) is the act of inflicting harm or humiliation in return for an injury or other offence received. Definitions vary slightly depending on the dictionary, but most of them stress the elements of offence, humiliation, unforgiveness, resentment…, all of which are subjective and highly emotional. Thus, what would be the main purpose of revenge? Ultimately, to retaliate with moral damage for moral damage; to make the offender feel as bad as the offended has felt. This spiritual harm comes often alongside material injury, but this is not a requirement and might even not be the norm. When the harm is purely material, the victim usually does not feel a personal affront and is more inclined to seek justice instead, or in some cases retaliation, but not revenge, which is a deeper personal feeling. An offence can come hand in hand with material disservice when this is done to us out of bad will or animosity, but this is precisely the characteristic element that will trigger our wish for revenge: the moral insult, rather than the material loss itself. Still, many affronts do not involve material harm. Prigozhin, for instance, slandered Shoigu while causing him no physical or material injury whatsoever, and thus the latter (but not the Kremlin!) may have felt the desire to avenge the reviling.
Also, for the purpose of this exposition, I need to establish a sui generis distinction of my own coinage regarding the difference between vengeance and retaliation. I believe both concepts, though similar, are different in essence. Although they share a “retributory” and an “exemplary” component, I understand retaliation as having an unemotional, rather “educating” or “punishing” aim whereas vengeance serves emotional requital, and generally can only be taken by the offended. (Not seldom revenge is done on behalf of someone else, as is the case of feuds for instance, but that is because the avenger feels, out of closeness with the victim, the insult as personally inflicted on him too. As a matter of fact, very often in vendettas someone is slain in order to harm not so much him, but his family.)
And one last important idea: the vindictive mind needs the offender to know–or guess at the very least–that revenge is being taken on him. Killing or harming him without he ever getting to realize who did it and why does not serve the aim of vengeance and will therefore not fully satisfy the avenger. Not in vain it is said that “revenge is a dish to be served cold”. We vindictive minds need our wrongdoer to morally suffer in payment for whatever he did to us, so he “regrets” having done it and “learns the lesson”; otherwise our action will not quite be a vengeance, but rather a “frustration reliever” or the result of momentary wrath.
All of this is to say that, supposing the Kremlin is behind Prigozhin’s murder, it is not likely it was done out of revenge stricto sensu, for “the Kremlin” as an institution cannot take offence. If we want to blame the institution for the crime, it would be good we explained what practical goal might have been wanted to achieve with it. Alternatively, if we want to adduce vengeance, then we should point to a person, not an institution: Shoigu or Putin, for instance, rather than “the Kremlin” as such. Both things at the same time–a vindictive Kremlin–cannot be.
The Kremlin did it
As to the first option (a guilty Kremlin), whatever might the non-personal, purely political or practical reasons be to kill Prigozhin, it is for those who make such claim to provide a realistic explanation, some credible thesis. Pure antipathy towards Putin or the “spook state” does not convince me. I myself can think of a few possibilities, but only so far as making the questions, not giving the answers.
- Did Wagner’s command pose a threat to Russia’s government? If so, what particular threat? The likelihood of a new mutiny, for instance? Might be, but how probable was that? Prigozhin and Utkin tried their luck and for whatever reason gave up, or simply failed, as a result of which Wagner troops are supposedly no longer in Russia. How could they try again a coup from abroad and succeed this time? Hard to imagine.
- Did the Kremlin want to behead Wagner in order to “seize” the PMC and use it at their will? This might be a good one; however, if those fighters feel the slightest loyalty to their deceased bosses I would not bet on them to now happily work for the latter’s murderers. If this was the goal, a fair trial would have made better sense and been more effective. In any case, and oddly enough, I have not seen this argument put forward by the Kremlin blamers.
- Did the Kremlin seek plain retaliation -not revenge– against those who dared march on Moscow, with the aim of forewarning whomever thinks of doing something similar in the future? Plausible version, and some pundits’ favourite; but then why Prigozhin and Utkin weren’t simply arrested after their mutiny, judged and sentenced? This would surely be infinitely more exemplary than an unclaimed murder. Some argue that Russia is simply too weak, disastrous and crooked a state to deal out justice like any decent and strong state would; and maybe they are right. But still, by not even tacitly admitting authorship, the presumed “warning” objective would not be particularly well achieved, since potential perpetrators of future rebellions, not being sure this was a punishment, might therefore not be sufficiently dissuaded from trying their luck. On the other hand, even the clumsiest, dumbest, weakest and crookedest government should not have much difficulty in getting Wagner’s command fairly judged, sentenced and condemned for the riot, since from a legal point of view the charges were simple and undeniable.
In any case, let us assume the action was plotted and carried out by the said impersonal author for any of the above reasons (or others I am unable to guess). Why would the Kremlin do it in such an embarrassing and unprofessional way, for people and governments to suspect them of having murderously beheaded Wagner (plus a handful of other totally innocent Russians)? They had many, far better and infinitely more discreet ways of killing the rioters (Africa being possibly the optimal scenario) than by a noteworthy plane crash right in the middle of the BRICS summit, compromising Russia’s “morality” when and where it is trying to present itself as the world’s moral superpower. Moreover, in fact, during the last days of his life Prigozhin was somehow doing Russia a service, since his businesses in Africa couldn’t but be generally perceived as a sort of “assistance” for some African countries on the part of Moscow, which is always helpful for the oligarchs. Would they get rid of him when he was being useful?
The Lukashenko objection
Another possible objection to the Kremlin’s authorship is that Putin would have now forced Lukashenko to come out and make some statements he probably wasn’t very excited about making as a way of “safety disavow”. By -presumedly- killing Wagner’s command that way, it was reasonable to assume many people would point at Moscow as the main suspect, and thus, for keeping rumblings away, Luka feels now the need to declare that Prigozhin had not asked him for any security guarantees when he cut the deal between Wagner and the Kremlin. There was no need to risk compromising and upsetting Lukashenko, whose support Putin needs so badly no matter how much (as per some pundits) he is hated by Russia’s liberal oligarchs.
Of course Luka’s words can be interpreted as proof of the Kremlin’s authorship: “Why else would he say that Prigozhin’s safety was not his responsibility?”, would the argument go. “Does this not evidence that Lukashenko is blaming the Kremlin?” But this would be a flawy syllogism. In good logic, Luka’s words prove nothing except the fact that he is protecting himself against the possibility of Putin being behind those deaths.
Exactly two months after the mutiny
I have also read people pointing out the date in which the murder took place as proof of its retaliatory nature, because Wagner’s mutiny had happened exactly two months earlier, on June 23rd. But this makes little sense to me, because how could the Kremlin convince the Wagner command to get on board that plane precisely that day to suit its evil design? Perhaps a trap was set for Prigozhin and Utkin, but what if they did not fall in it? Would have the Kremlin waited for the next 23rd to set another trap? I do not say it is impossible, but such a requirement (to kill him on a 23rd) renders the assassination a lot more difficult, and anyway to what end? For whom would the “message” be?
It was revenge
As to vengeance, in principle I can only think of two people in the Kremlin who might have felt personally offended by Prigozhin: the Ministry of Defence (for the insults directed at him, by his now victim, in the videos published during the battle for Bakhmut) and the President himself (for the treacherous mutiny that questioned his authority). According to my understanding of the word “revenge” as an emotional matter, unrelated with state affairs, I will stick to personal offences. Whose revenge exactly? Putin’s or Shoigu’s?
Prigozhin’s plea was against the corrupt generals responsible for the alleged ammunition shortages, and his recorded broadsides were never addressed to Putin. The rebellion, however, was quite another matter and directly threatened the President’s position; but still, did it constitute a personal insult to him that begged for vengeance, or rather a crime that deserved official or unofficial punishment? Besides, I am not sure whether Putin has the character, the resolve or even the authority enough to order a vindictive Red Code that would, besides, mean undeserved death for a few other persons unrelated with Wagner. His detractors constantly portray him as a girly, yellow and spineless guy almost devoid of any real power and brainwashed by liberal ideas — one of which happens to be morals. For all I know and perceive, he does not strike me as the kind of guy who would of his own accord and twisted revengeful mind have devised that operation.
With regards to Shoigu, he is certainly the number one person in the world with the best and most “legitimate” motivation for taking personal revenge on Prigozhin; but had he wanted to, there were better, more exemplary and adequate opportunities of doing it back then and there, when those insulting videos were being published, rather than waiting for a chance that might have never come. And even if he did not dare do it then (maybe thinking that Prigozhin enjoyed Putin’s favour, or that Wagner was still necessary to finish taking Bakhmut), what better opportunity than the march on Moscow to satisfy his resentment? Take the guy, throw him in a gulag jail and let him die there like a rat. That’d be a revenge!
Anyhow, whether the avenger was Putin or Shoigu, vindictive minds (at least the machiavelic, sophisticated ones) want their victim -as I said- to be aware that he is being returned the harm or the humiliation previously inflicted by him, for otherwise the revenge is meaningless. Every time in my younger days I felt like murdering my offenders (ideally scot free, of course) I stopped at the thought that, alas!, if I killed them without first letting them know it was me, there would be no requital at all. It would not be a proper vengeance, but plain distasteful and purposeless butchery, like hunting rabbits. Eventually, I came to realize that any revenge comme il faut needs for the victim to be aware not only of who is causing him pain, but also the reason why. So, what parody of a vengeance would Putin or Shoigu be performing were they to blow up Prigozhin’s flight without giving him time to realize what was going on? If they did it for revenge, well, certainly Prigozhin died without any remorse or regret for the affronts inflicted on his executioners, and ultimately without punishment, since dead people do not suffer.
To sum up, I have the impression that straightaway blaming the Kremlin (for the beheading of Wagner PMC) without further evidence or a sound argument is slothful, and actually the analysts from whom I have read such instinctive take are bitter Kremlin despisers, seemingly more inspired by spite than backed by cool-headed reasoning. In the haste for vilifying Russia’s rulers (who probably deserve the whipping) one may easily overlook or minimize the several objections that can be made to such thesis; most of all taking into account that the mandatory question (qui prodest) yields in this case a list headed not by the Kremlin, Putin or Shoigu, but by other two or three suspects (France and USA at least) which would benefit sensibly more than Russia from those deaths; and also taking into account that Prigozhin/Wagner were not short of enemies who might as likely have planned and carried out the attack.
With all of this I am by no means stating that neither the Russian government nor any of its individual members are behind Prigozhin’s plane crash. Their authorship holds of course a credible theory, but perhaps not the most plausible one. I would simply like to see thesis that take into account all the possible objections and are better backed than by venomous contempt.